Who do we want to run the country?

Door knocking at election time brings many benefits. Gentle exercise, catching some sunshine, and of course, talking with the public.

An unexpected benefit is seeing the vast diversity of front gardens.  From manicured lawns and colourful tulips, to weeds and piles of rubble. I’ve concluded, in a totally unscientific way, that there’s a correlation between how neat someone’s garden is, and how likely they are to vote.

Political parties can get a copy of the electoral register, marked with whether people voted in each election. How they voted is secret, of course. But from talking to people, there is no correlation between how tidy someone’s garden is and who they say they’ll vote for.

People do curious things for status. One person told me that since her husband was now a high earner, she was thinking of switching from Labour to Conservative. Status, like fashion, is about emulating people you want to be associated with.

“Do you really see yourself being like Boris Johnson and the Conservatives?” I asked. I left unspoken the record of tax dodging, law breaking and contracts for their mates. She didn’t. Like me, she wanted people in charge who’d create a safe place for her kids to grow up. This was just before Tory MP Neil Parish was caught watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons.

I’ve said before that I don’t believe all Labour politicians are saints, and all Tories are sinners. We all know that any group can have a rogue member. What angers people is the covering up and closing ranks.

It’s a pattern of behaviour. Tory Whips did nothing about Neil Parish for days after it was reported.  Priti Patel’s bullying. Boris Johnson’s law breaking. Not one, but two Tory Chancellors – Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak – have benefited from non-dom tax avoidance. They seem to base their moral response on whether they’re getting bad headlines. This is low status. Any truly upstanding citizen would condemn it.

One Tory voter told me that although sleaze was a problem, Mr Johnson had led the country well through the pandemic. I didn’t ask which newspaper she reads.

I mentioned that I was North of Tyne Mayor, and had many meetings with government ministers. That we didn’t know what government policy was from one day to the next. Like in January last year, when the PM said on Sunday morning that schools would definitely stay open. And on the Monday, he closed them. That he missed five COBRA meetings in a row because he was writing a book about Shakespeare, because he needed the money. And said he’d rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than have another lockdown. And then had another lockdown anyway, but only after the bodies had piled high in their thousands.

She remembered all those events. By chance, she had just picked up her postal vote off the doormat, and had it in her hand. “You’ve convinced me,” she said. “I’ll fill it now.”

“But the council haven’t cut the grass,” or equivalent statement crops up a lot. Local councils get blamed for underfunded services. The PM keeps repeating untrue statements at Prime Ministers Questions. Even if a known liar says something, people of good faith still think it might be true. So let’s check the facts. 

In the last decade, the Conservative government has taken £413 per person per year from councils in the North of England.  So says IPPR’s State of the North report.  £413 cuts a lot of grass. 

FullFact.org shows that average council tax per household is £1,256 for Labour run councils, £1,592 for Conservatives, and £1,700 for Lib Dems.

The most typical response in a doorstep conversation is “I don’t know which way I’ll vote.” Politics, at its heart, should be about a social contract. What do we expect of our citizens, and what do we want our government to prioritise? Instead, British politics has sunk into a grotesque reality TV show.

Only 1 in 3 people vote in local elections. Do we want a country run by someone whose only interest – and only skill – is self-preservation? If you want better politics, and better politicians, please vote on Thursday.

* Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 2 May 22